Wisdom may come from strange places, and for me an example appeared in a recent Harvard Business Review magazine. The strange part? An article did not mention Maine sporting camps, but its message started me thinking about these semi-wilderness, lodging-and-dining facilities, a tradition that goes back over 100 years in this state.

HBR instructed business owners to learn pertinent customer information. Many of the world’s well-run businesses use scientifically obtained demographics for that goal, and the statistics and professional interpretations of the results provide management data to help improve business-customer relationships, which lead to higher revenues.

First, though, let’s look at two facts about Maine camps:

Many have hosted sports folks for decades, and some camps have belonged to the same family for more than one generation. Obviously these owners are doing something right for the camps to flourish.

 But some camps flounder and occasionally I read about advocates who think sports camps should get state subsidies so they don’t fail.

HBR talked about common personality traits of customers, six to be exact, and how businesses should know these half-dozen characteristics cold. Furthermore, one customer may exhibit more than one trait – like me, a customer with a one and six personality. I’ll wager successful camps recognize these personalities and thrive because of this knowledge. The other camps haven’t learned.

Here’s the crux of my column: Some camp owners have complained to me about customer quirks, a red flag if I were an investor. The secret to success in this very specialized hospitality business begins with taking all the customer needs into consideration, including quirks that may appear nonsensical until looking beyond the initial negative impression.

Readers here may see themselves in the next six personalities. I did.

The first customer, according to HBR, has an attitude as old as business. He or she wants to pay a fair price for efficient, pleasant service and an appealing product. Furthermore, the customer dislikes dwelling on a relationship with the owner beyond the considerations in a basic, business transaction. The client doesn’t need a pal.

I have heard business owners complain the most about the second customer’s personality – a know-it-all who provides a list of ideas on how to improve service. Unsolicited advice is seldom appreciated, but it pays to listen to suggestions with an open, positive mind.

The third customer has frequented the business before but desires a new experience – say wanting to learn to fly-fish or kayak. If the camp can provide that service and furnish competent teachers, so much the better.

The fourth customer strikes me as an odd one. This person wants to feel like a friend of the owner, and that relationship must go beyond pleasantries in face-to-face meetings. The guest wants to know about changes in advance – say if prices for lodging are going up next year. The “friend” wants to know info like that this year.

The fifth customer has an exaggerated aura of self-worth. If the waiter burps, that’s reason enough to leave.

HBR called the sixth customer a “buddy,” because he or she, well, wants to be a buddy. But this person wants no owner to place demands on him or her. For example, the customer may drink the same beverage each meal or want to fish the exact spot on a pond evening after evening, but occasionally that customer wants the opportunity to change the routine. If this complicates the customer relationship, that’s a demand.

That last one applies to me. I often order the same breakfast on each visit to restaurants, and proprietors notice. I appreciate that observation unless it’s time for me to make a change. Then I must beat the waiter or cook to the punch by ordering well beforehand. Sometimes the cook prepares the meal before I talk to the waitperson.

Here’s an example of another problem that applies to me: Two writers and I once planned to stay at a Maine camp and I talked to the proprietor on the phone after discovering the Net option was malfunctioning. He wanted me to register on the Net – not on the phone – and asked me to try the Net again. That dumbfounded me.

Even more baffling, he admitted to having a chronic problem with electronic registering, so why would he ask me to continue with a method that included the Net? My fishing party went elsewhere.

As writers, we hadn’t asked for a freebie or discount, so the owner would have received free publicity in articles, but he lost that opportunity. One of us had an “exaggerated aura of self-worth” unmet, and the transaction failed.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at

[email protected]

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